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#10 - JRL 7005
Russia: Monitors Welcome in Chechnya
January 5, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia (AP) - Russia would welcome European and other international observers to monitor a constitutional referendum in Chechnya, a top diplomat said in comments released Sunday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov said officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could attend the referendum set for March and subsequent elections - despite Moscow's refusal to extend the mandate of an OSCE mission monitoring the humanitarian situation in the war-torn territory.

``The OSCE can monitor the situation even without having its assistance group there,'' Chizhov said in comments posted Sunday on the Foreign Ministry's website.

Russia has refused to renew the mission's mandate, which expired Dec. 31, after criticizing it for trying to mediate a peace settlement between the government and Chechen rebels.

Jorma Inki, the former head of the OSCE monitoring mission, said Sunday that a referendum is needed in Chechnya ``to legitimize local authorities, but it is too early to hold it in the current circumstances.''

The presence of 80,000 Russian servicemen, the large number of displaced people and ``the basically unstable situation'' do not create ``suitable circumstances for a real referendum,'' Inki told the Interfax news agency.

Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration has pushed for the referendum to consolidate its grip on the war-ravaged region. The proposed constitution would be subordinate to federal law and would ignore the separatists' independence claim.

Long facing Western pressure for a political solution to the Chechen conflict, the Kremlin has tried to present the referendum and the elections as elements of a peace process. At the same time, President Vladimir Putin has firmly refused to negotiate with the rebels, calling them international terrorists who must be eliminated.

Despite officials' claim that they control the situation in Chechnya, the rebels continue to mount regular raids against federal servicemen and local pro-Moscow officials.

At least four pro-Moscow Chechen police officers were killed and another eight wounded late Saturday in a police raid in the Chechen capital Grazny that left a suspected rebel dead late Saturday, an official with the pro-Kremlin administration said.

Another pro-Moscow policeman was killed in Grozny on Sunday in a separate clash with the rebels, and three federal servicemen were shot dead in Saturday's clash with rebels in the southern Vedeno region, the official said.

Eighty-three people were killed in the Dec. 27 suicide truck-bombing of the Chechen administration's headquarters.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a botched 20-month campaign against the rebels, which left the region de facto independent. They returned in 1999 after rebel raids in a neighboring region and a series of apartment-house bombings that killed more than 300 people and were blamed on the rebels.

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